CHARLOTTE, NC (Ely Portillo/The Charlotte Observer) - Prominent developer Johnny Harris didn't hold back Tuesday, advocating for higher transit taxes, calling for light rail to Charlotte's airport and predicting that the Raleigh/Durham region won't land Amazon's second headquarters.
Speaking at the Charlotte Regional Partnership's annual Jerry Awards luncheon, Harris also predicted the local real estate boom will last up to two more years "as long as Trump continues to do nothing stupider," and that the Carolina Panthers won't relocate when a new owner purchases the team.
Lincoln Harris, the development company Harris founded, was honored as one of two Jerry Awards winners. The other winner of the award, which recognizes civic vision and achievement, was the Charlotte Knights.
"I'm fortunate enough to have been born and raised here in Charlotte," said Harris. His company is leading several huge developments, including a 33-story tower for Bank of America at the former Charlotte Observer site, the 194-acre Rea Farms mixed-use development at Providence Road and Interstate 485, and portions of the River District, a nearly 1,400-acre mixed-use development west of Charlotte's airport.
Here's what Harris had to say about several of the biggest issues facing Charlotte:
Some leaders in Charlotte were shocked the city missed the cut for Amazon's second headquarters short list, and that the Triangle region made that list. But Harris said the Raleigh region won't get Amazon's second headquarters - which is expected to bring 50,000 jobs - because the area doesn't have light rail. Harris called delays in building transit there "a huge mistake."
"They're not going to get Amazon, but if they had built that light rail, they would get it," he said. Harris, a Democrat, pointed to opposition from some Republicans. "They opposed it, and it did not get built."
Spending more on Charlotte transit
Charlotte leaders have talked about spending around $5 billion to $7 billion on the city's next phase of transit, which would include rail to Matthews and Charlotte Douglas International Airport, as well as the streetcar and possibly the Red Line to Lake Norman. Such a move would require more sources of funding, something Harris said he would support.
"I absolutely support an additional half-cent tax for transit," Harris said. That would be on top of the current half-cent sales tax in Mecklenburg County that helps fund the Charlotte Area Transit system. Harris also said running light rail west to Charlotte Douglas - which could help the River District development as well - should be a priority.
"I challenge everyone in this room to protect this airport and tie it to uptown with light rail," said Harris.
On the Panthers sale
Harris is a minority owner in the Carolina Panthers, but he said he doesn't know any details about the sale process.
"I know nothing, I'm just an investor," said Harris. He said Erskine Bowles, another minority owner who is representing the group, also hasn't learned details. "He doesn't know anything, because I've asked him."
The Jerry Awards are named in part after team owner and founder Jerry Richardson, who is selling the team in the wake of accusations that he sexually harassed female employees.
Harris predicted that the new owner, who could be named this spring, would not seek to move the team out of Charlotte.
"There's no reason to move the team," Harris said, citing the Charlotte market's growth, fan base and sales. "(The NFL owners) love this market. They love the job Jerry's done."
He did predict one change: "I do think you may see turf field immediately with a new owner."
Harris said Charlotte needs to focus on providing good jobs and affordable housing for more people, in the wake of protests and riots that followed the Sept. 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man.
"We need to make every effort to address those people who feel economically disenfranchised and have no housing they can afford," said Harris. He called civil unrest a "dirty word that should never have been part of the vocabulary" in Charlotte.